The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on Monday said “she was saddened” by the Sunday Times report alleging she that transported a young Burundian woman into the country unlawfully and that in the process, she abused state resources.
In a detailed statement issued by the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, Mapisa-Nqakula said the report was a “deliberate attempt to twist the facts in this matter”.
The Sunday Times reported that Mapisa-Nqakula had conceded that she flew from Waterkloof Air Force Base to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect a Burundian woman who had been arrested for falsifying travel documents.
But the ministry of defence said Mapisa-Nqakula found it particularly “hurtful that despite her sharing the circumstances involved in the unfolding of this matter with the Sunday Times, the reporter chose his obvious bias and sensation, without any regard for the protection of a child rescued from a life of abuse and abandonment”.
The defence ministry added: “In so doing the reporter, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, may have caused to reverse months of progress the child has made in healing and rebuilding her life.”
Mapisa-Nqakula said: “For more than two years now, my family and I have been living with a young woman, a Burundian national, that was forced to leave her home to escape a life of abuse at the hands of her father. Her mother died, having committed suicide due to abuse when the little girl as three years old.
“The young woman had become friends with my children during their various holiday visits, between 2013 and 2014, to Burundi, where my sister lived during her diplomatic tour of duty for the SA government.
“During this period, Mimi, as we all call her in the house, visited my family in South Africa twice, including spending the festive holidays of 2013 with us.
“As required by our immigration laws, my family and I provided letters of invitation and confirmation for living expenses in order for her visa to be issued.
“On both occasions that she had visited us in 2013, Mimi was issued a visa (visitor’s permit) on the presentation of her Burundi passport.
“It was only after our children had returned with Mimi to Burundi for the January leg of the holidays that we became aware of the circumstances under which she had been living and that since her childhood, she had lived a life of abuse and had lived with various relatives and foster families in Europe, the US and Burundi, since her mother died,” said Maspisa-Nqakula.
The minister said Mimi expressed a wish to live in South Africa to pursue her studies and to live in a safe environment.
“Her father initially allowed her to travel to SA and also gave her passport, which he normally kept,” said Mapisa-Nqakula.
“On the day the children were to travel, her father followed her at the airport with security personnel and demanded that she not travel.
“Mimi was already over 18 years of age and protested that she can no longer continue to live in a secretive life of abuse and that with her father’s powerful connections she will not receive protection in Burundi. (This traumatic conversation of the confrontation in the airport security office is recorded by the children and is available)
“Since her father could not legally stop her from travelling, he once again confiscated her passport, which still had a valid 3 months South African visa from her previous travel to SA.
“From this moment, Mimi resolved to seek refuge with friends and other families and seek help to obtain papers to leave Burundi on her own,” said Mapisa-Nqakula.
The minister said Mimi approached the UNCHR, which registered her case, but could not assist her as their scope was limited to assisting refugees who were entering Burundi to seek protection from other countries.
“They did not have the ability to assist her to leave the country, but given the seriousness of her case, they advised her to seek entry into the Democratic Republic of Congo and advised her to contact the Congolese embassy in Bujumbura,” said Mapisa-Nqakula.
“She was then advised she could be assisted to obtain a temporary Congolese passport. In order to avoid the risk of alerting her father of the impending escape, she had to assume a false name at the Uvira border, she was assisted with temporary travel documents to travel into the Congo and present herself to the South African embassy and reveal her true identity for assistance and protection.
“Having concern for her destitute situation, and worried for her safety in a foreign country, I had once again, in my individual capacity, written an assurance letter to the SA embassy in the DRC to assist her in obtaining a visa so that she can travel to SA. In this regard she had become a classical case for refugee assistance and protection.
“She was, however, arrested in the Congo on suspicion of holding a fraudulent document as she couldn’t speak French or any of the Congolese local languages.
“This young, frail and vulnerable woman, known to my family and a friend of our children, became destitute and vulnerable to further abuse, possibly even sexual harassment. She was in detention for a total of 10 days,” said Mapisa-Nqakula.
She said it was “also around this time that I was supposed to travel on official business” for the 26th AU summit in Addis Abba towards the end of January 2014.
“My delegation and I were also due to meet with my counterpart in the DRC, in preparation for the ministerial consultation of countries dealing with the Great Lakes crisis, on the side of the AU summit,” said the minister.
“Given this opportunity, after the meeting, I had brought the matter of Mimi’s plight to the minister to enquire if there is a way for her to be assisted.
“The minister in the DRC, then consulted the immigration office to enquire about her circumstances, and was informed that she had not committed a crime and was only detained to verify how she obtained a Congolese travel document and that they had concluded there investigation in that regard.
“They also confirmed that my account of her circumstances collaborated her written statement at the time of detention and that she could be released.
“To avoid her being deported back to her country, I offered to take her with me and to assist her in gaining her lawful travel documents.
“It is therefore completely misleading, as reported by the Sunday Times, that I had organised a trip and assembled a delegation of senior military and government officials, simply to travel to the Congo to illegally ‘smuggle’ a child.
“Mimi had been lawfully released by the Congolese government after my clarification of her circumstances and the conclusion of their own investigation,” said Mapisa Nqakula.
She said fortunately Mimi had kept a copy of her passport with a South African visa on a memory stick.
“It was through this document that she was able to travel with me to Addis Ababa and return to South Africa, legally. Why the Sunday Times report chooses to claim that she travelled with fraudulent documents, is beyond comprehension.”
Mapisa-Nqakula said a copy of Mimi’s passport was available.
The minister said Mimi has since “applied and obtained a study permit and enrolled at a college in South Africa while living in my house”.
The minister said: “Mimi is finally on a path of healing and living in conditions of safety and it is my hope that she will find stability that will help to prepare her for a full and productive future life.
“Over this period, she has re-established contact with her family, and recently, we recently also received a request from her father to meet with her, and with her consent advised that he can come and see her at the house where she can be comfortable.
“It is my hope that she can continue to study and complete her studies with our support and that this will prepare her to be a stable and independent woman, when she finally leaves our home on completion of her schooling.
“I have no regrets in the actions that I have taken and my involvement in assisting this child. I would never have been able to live with my conscience if something had happened to her when I knew that I could have done something to help her. I believe it was the right thing to do.”
The defence ministry said it “will like to put it on record that the facts as presented above were given to the Sunday Times reporter Mr Mzilikazi wa Afrika, who came with the editor-in-chief to interview the minister late Sunday afternoon”.
The ministry said it had initially “recorded our concern” with the editor that Mapisa-Nqakula was only informed at 2pm that there was a story involving her being written for the following day, and that they would want her response.
“It was always our concern that such a last-minute approach would jeopardise the integrity of the story as, so close to the deadline, the story had already been written without the minister’s side of the story, and that it would be difficult, at that late stage to rework the story to reflect the truth, even after obtaining the facts,” said the defence ministry.
“The sensational manner in which the report was finally written, is a confirmation of our fears. They had however insisted that they will go ahead with their own story and as a result the interview was granted.
“The sensational headline for a front page story was however too tempting for them to take the time to verify all the facts that have been given, including contacting the UNHCR, the immigration departments and Mimi’s family back home. Once again, the truth suffered at the hands of unethical and unprofessional conduct of an enthusiastic reporter yearning for bygone glory.”
The defence ministry said Mapisa-Nqakula “reserves all her rights in seeking recourse on this matter for her, her family, including the protection of Mimi from abuse and harassment”.